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Social Compass


Socio-religious research as a professional role in the institutional Church

J. Dhooghe Social Compass 1969; 16; 227 DOI: 10.1177/003776866901600204

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Socio-religious research as a professional

role in the institutional Church


La recherche socio-religieuse en tant




qu’activitéprofessionnelle fait partie

professionnel elle présente

une série de caractéristiques communes aux autres professions. Ces carac-

téristiques sont modifiées

comme institution. Dans son rôle

par lengagement dans lEglise où le rôle est

groupe professionnel


au niveau des valeurs et des normes. Le

sociologues constitue un premier groupe de référence pour la recherche

socio-religieuse. Mais il n’est pas un groupe de référence positif en ce

sens quil ne fournit que peu de sanctions positives au chercheur socio-

religieux dans laccomplissement de son rôle. La recherche socio-religieuse

s’est constituée en in-group professionnel c’est-à-dire que les autres

groupes de recherche


la recherche


fonctionnent pas comme groupe

socio-religieuse est caractérisée par


l’Eglise plus que par


de référence professionnel.

En tant que profession

un engagement par

rapport à des valeurs

référence aux valeurs

professionnelles. Il serait inexact de dire que les

du chercheur socio-religieux sont la tension

sont la consé-

problèmes conflits de nature

seuls problèmes du rôle

entre son caractère professionnel et l’aliénation due à une dépendance à

l’égard de la bureaucratie de lEglise. Certains

quence de lengagement vis-à-vis de lEglise. Dans des

idéologique à l’intérieur de l’Eglise, une intervention qui se veut profes-

sionnelle est perçue comme étant de nature idéologique; de ce fait la

recherche socio-religieuse risque d’être idéologisée

davantage, au détri-

ment du caractère professionnel de son rôle.

There can be no doubt about it that Church-related research is in a rather



nowadays. This, however, is not always well understood.

else in the realization of their social role,



Sociologists, just as everybody

positive to negative

sanctions. They define their social role in a specific


research contains several components


a usual characteristic of

and is

made up of different reference groups. One of the reference groups of socio- religious research is the Church in its different manifestations. Another one is the

of their activities they may

situation, which for

group of fellow-sociologists. In seeking

refer themselves to peer groups. This is

doing research that is demanded by Church


social roles in the Church, or by




Sociologists will also look for positive rewards from the side of those

Church members for which they want to

perform a positive function either by

officials, by influencing people with

influencing public opinion at large.


If none of these ambitions succeed, just as in any other

role, a specialist

dedicated to socio-religious research will have to look for a

self-legitimation on

the basis of an inner-directed attitude or else modify his activities.


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is the hypothesis of this article that

socio-religious research is part of an


of different groups.


institutional framework which includes the role

Conflicts and role uncertainty

are the result of a process

on the one hand, role definitions on the other hand

of social exchange, where different groups in relation

of role-

to socio-religious research command the values which are the

performance of specialists


in socio-religious research. Generally this situation is

for research, etc. The conflict-situation thus outlined is

to a certain extent by researchers in the socio-religious field. They

especially as sociologists of religion


enough seek their advice,

define themselves as sociologists and more and regret the fact that the Church does not

give them opportunities

surely real but gives

an incomplete picture of the structural relations between

socio-religious research and its different reference-groups. Other

relationship between socio-religious

research and sociology, and the evolution of sociology of religion. With regard

to the Church as a reference group there can be no doubt about the fact that the Church is not a monolith, but consists of different categories of social roles, all

which have not necessarily



be considered as well, such as the nature of the

the same interests or the same

viewpoints and which,

as a consequence, apply

socio-religious field.

different criteria for evaluating the role of research in the

A sociological analysis of socio-religious research, religious sociology, pastoral

sociology, Church-related research, or whatever other labels there are to designate this reality, is necessary for several reasons. It will throw some light on the func-

of the institutional Church

tioning of the Church

institutionalized context

as an institution. The


should not limit itself to parishes

The activity of research and reflexion regarding the Church, generally in an

and other traditional organizational patterns.

(according to patterned norms) done by committed

christians is perhaps less a feature of the institutional life of the Church than the

activity of theologians, along



but should not be excluded from it.

lines will make clearer the subject matter of socio-religious


research and the way it can relate itself to other types of sociology.

It is

insufficient to admit that Church-related research is



Above all it is necessary to show that if the subject matter of socio-religious

a crisis and if sociology of

religion is in evolution (that means the sociological understanding of religion

research (this means the Church)

goes through

- suffer

from this crisis and evolution, and be in need of a redefinition of its

the situation and the role of socio-religious research

some of the main characteristics must be identified . Socio-religious research and reflexion is characterized by varying degrees of organizational insertion in the Church. Some research is done by sociologists or

research centers, all of which are part of the bureaucracy of the Church. A strong

Before analyzing properly

and of the Church), Church-related research must - most





from the Church hierarchy is generally recognized as an

good research and occasionally sociologists working within the frame-work



the Church


about the fact that they are not allowed to do the research


or certain conclusions are tabu;

that they think is necessary; that certain

that not only their conclusions but also the facts they present are not accepted,


This situation which could be analyzed as the

of alienation of socio-

religious specialists in the Church bureaucracy, or as a usual conflict between staff



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and line in an organization, should be

which is complementary.

social expressions (which

distinguished from a commitment to a


distinguished from another phenomenon,


of commitment may take different forms.

in its religious reality and


institutionalized), should be

of sociological study. This

This concerns the degree of commitment of

are in different degrees



specialists to the Church. This degree

The degree of commitment to the Church both

of sociological study is in most cases the Church.




Let us consider first the case of the commitment to

the Church. Sociology as a


with its


the field of study which is

profession functions as a reference group. In the field

sociology, the object of socio-religious research is often evaluated in accordance

sociological relevancy. A

of its practioners.

second basis for evaluating is the nature of the

1. The church as a subject matter

It becomes increasingly clear that socio-religious research and sociology of religion

should not be


This is shown by the present discussions on secularization,

religion’, etc. On the other hand socio-religious research

are more related to the sociology of organizations, of

by the treatment of ’civil

may analyse topics which

professions, of education, etc.

In a situation of interaction with


possible latent conflict-situation which result from the

Church authorities and

difference between what

the sociologist thinks he is able to offer, and what the Church

him, the sociologist may

management asks

find legitimation in reference to his own professional

field, namely sociology. This legitimation coming from other sociologists is done

on the basis of the contribution

of socio-religious research to sociology and by


scientific standards. Both, the attempts

sociology of religion

doubtfull, however,

itself by reference to

judging socio-religious research by

of socio-religious research to legitimate

and acknowledgment by this group of peers is a fact. It is

just how much these

socio-religious research.


the other. Suffice

has put itself

attempts to legitimation are strengthening the position of

It is not the intention here to retrace once again the history of the ratler deep

that existed for a long time between sociology in general, the classical

sociology of religion on the one hand, and beginning socio-religious research on it to say that socio-religious research for a considerable time

sociology in trying to get the


out of the main trend of

attention of the Church authorities. One may further

put it rather crudely this

way that, shortly after socio-religious research had found its links with sociology

of religion, the scene changed and the relevancy of Church-oriented research for

understanding religion as a sociological

phenomenon was put into question.

calls ’denominational

Perhaps the severest criticism of what Luckmann




religion has been put forward by him as early as 1963. 1 In this work

in the

writings of several other authors, criticism moves along three lines: a)

sociology which restricts its attention to a Church-related religion



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is not capable of answering really important sociological questions, b) the subject

matter of this type of study is


tific work.

research has ideological

rapidly becoming marginal in society; c) socio-

assumptions, which are incompatible with scien-

It is in tliis context not so important to know whether these criticisms are true

or false; the important thing is that they necessarily bring about the possibility

of a role-conflict for the specialist dedicated to socio-religious research.

reference to his peer group must


have an ambivalent character. The

and socio-religious research is continued and the


cleavage between sociology

self-legitimation of socio-religious research will have to take into account this


2. Denominational sociology


Matthes thinks that, because of the criticism made from different sides, the

empirical Church- and socio-religious research is

of stagnation. He affirms, that during the last few years

presently going through a period

nearly no research work


in this field has been

published, which has been able to give new

sociology of religion.

to the

The critical discussion of the scien-

need for new theoretical frames of

themes and methods of

tific basis of sociology of religion and the

reference seem to paralyse empirical research at the moment. (Exceptions

made, e.g. for the study


of Lenski.) Research on Church-oriented religion and

socio-religious research should however not be equated as the example shows. But

even the study of Church-oriented

religion is being

criticized: ’One may wonder

whether it possesses the theoretical and methodological resources to analyse and

interpret adequately even that phenomenon (in the case: Church related reli-



Apart from the fact that denominational sociology of religion often fosters a

outlook, that matters of faith are excluded from research, that methods



often uncritical and on occasion

primitive, the criticism of Luckmann points

to the pragmatic

problem.4 The main reason, however, why important sociological questions cannot

orientation and the absence of theory in the definition of the

religion is - still according to


orientation’ which reflects itself in the way

reach of the Churches. 5

is a rather hard criticism of socio-religious research which did

be answered by the denominational sociology of

Luckmann - its narrow

it treats problems of secularisation and the shrinking

This, of course,

not want to have anything to do with positivism of earlier sociology of religion.

3. l.r the jubl*ect matter still relet’allt ,??

Criticism with regard to the contributions made to the sociology of religion may

not be the worst to befall it. After all there is not

one scientific truth. Different

may exist. The same can be said


views of what are sociologically

important topics

with regard to the choice of the subject matter. The main

know if Church-related religion is

marginal phenomena in society. In that

problems to study, even for socio-religious research.


here is to

disappearing and Churches are becoming

case, there would be more important

In the well known discussions on sect and Church phenomena more often than

not the Church seems to be considered an

N. Bellah 7 five stages of religious evolution can



the evolution. 6 For Robert

be distinguished. After noting


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that ’the symbolization of man’s relation to the ultimate conditions of his existence,

is no longer the monopoly of any groups

’the assumption in most


labeled religious’, he states that

of the major Protestant denominations is that the Church

member can be considered responsible for himself. This trend seems likely to

continue with an increasingly

purpose sub-groups

fluid type of organization in which many special


consumer orientation’ 8 in modern

the Churches in the ’market situation’ described by


becomes syncretistic and vague 11 even at the

form and disband.’ The role of the Church where each

provide him with a


individual must work out his own solutions, would be to

’favorable environment’ ’without imposing on him a set of

Luckmann points to the rise of a pervasive

industrial societies, which


draws to the private sphere

Berger 9, while the social function of these institutions of expressing the

hierarchy of meaning in the world view cannot any longer be fulfilled. 10

of themes of ’ultimate’ significance with-

Religion, identified with the


danger of letting Rome burn. 12


sociological thesis, however, meets with criticism. According to Matthes,

studies of Church-related religion are necessary because otherwise there can be

no study of importance

christianity. Study of christianity is necessary because of the historical

of christianity and because of the

deep influence of christianity on

sociology of religion. It

the concept formation and problems dealt with by the


reference. 13 Greinacher 14 on the other hand


is not yet empirically really


of Church-related religion is consequently

presented here,

discussion. The different views

cussion on socio-religious research. We touch here

would be impossible to study historically non-determined religion. Therefore

sociology should try to review and renew its theoretical frame of

with the view of Luckmann

and thinks that the Church will reform itself and become a ’Gemeindekirche’.

proven that these new noninsti- as forms of faith. 15

can be defined

Schreuder remarks that it

tutionalized forms of faith


would normally have their reper-

a subject of sociological

upon the problem of value-free

specialist in socio-religious

sociology which in the social role definition of the

research, becomes linked with is commitment to the Church.

4. Ideological assumptloiis



large is - socio-religious research. This

as is well known


- rather apprehensive


even more

about the self-

than the two

definition of


points, challenges the commitment to particular forms of

institutionalized religion.

There is of course nothing wrong with commitments even in sociology. This will

is here that the commitment towards the

Church in several cases leads to the adoption of assumptions

be developed further on. The point

and to institutionalized

and vice versa. We

role patterns which enter into conflict with current value-orientations of sociologists. These value-conflicts again are the cause of an ambivalent attitude of socio-

religious research students to the peer group of

want to consider here



the way these commitments affect the self-definition

of the professional role in socio-religious research with reference to the sociological


This self-definition takes different forms. Some say that socio-religious research

is not really sociology but a kind of theology. For N. Greinacher there is a


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distinction the task to

realization of the

between sociology of religion and

carry out theological analysis of the


sociology. The latter has

present as situation of the self-

Church. 1 Pastoral sociology in this sence should, however, still

pastoral theology.

establish the ’facts’ 17 and

interpret these theologically.

research do not choose

specialists in socio-religious


commitment to the Church becomes

be distinguished from

Somehow one should first

It is rather clear that these

sociologists as a reference group. Not

the main variable but

theologians whom they

mally sociologists will think that if one does not

positive sanction of their role definition is expected from

consider as their

professional peer group. And

refer oneself to the

quite nor-


of the sociologists as a peer group, one is no longer in the field of sociological

research. Others feel that


research is not

sufficiently legitimized if reference

sociology is important. The

is made only to the reasons why sociologists think

role of sociology and socio-religious research for the Church is not

the same way as the role of

behavior and to social praxis.

To legitimize socio-religious

justified in

other branches of sociology are with regard to human

research in the Church, additional reasons are found.

Reference may

insistance on the

supposes on

be made to the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes and its

between the people of God and humanity and the


task to discern the signs of the time’.



help the Church realize this would be a task for socio-religious research. But

the other hand again a spiritual and theological basis’ for socio-

religious research. 18

It is quite clear that every activity which is

to a

developed within of with reference

itself in terms of the

specific institutional frame-work has to legitimize

value-orientations proper to the institution. This is

true for all sociologists if

they want to realize anything at all in the institutional frame-work in which they

are inserted. This also goes for sociological research at universities to the degree

to which it is executed

This constitutes a permanent tension with the proper value-orientations of

by contract with representatives of an institution.

sociology. Sociologists tend to consider that the institution should accept the proper

legitimation of sociology as a profession,

in terms of the institutional


and not to ask for additional legitimation

A commitment to institutional values may


the specific professional

orientation of the sociologist, but will make


with regard to the Church

him more acceptable to the institution.

Now it would

seem that this poses more

than it would with regard to certain other social institutions.

A third problem in this regard,

this process the professional

posed by the tension between the commitment to


the Church and the reference to

aforementioned role-tensions have resulted in a form of group reaction which

led people involved in socio-religious research to form their own associations. By

consists in the fact that all the

peer group is not any longer constituted bij the other

but by the group of students who have

members of the sociological profession,

more or less analogous


the latent tension with the


regard to sociology at large. In this way both

group of other sociologists and the commitment to the

Church as a main value-orientation become institutionalized. Legitimation of socio-

religious research as a

professional occupation

with regard to a social institution

which furnishes also the standards for

is made in terms of this reference group


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evaluation of work done. Professional sanctions and rewards are

having institutionalized itself in this way and having

provided by the in-group.

It remains true that,

developed an in-group for the allocation of professional

and the promotion

rewards and sanctions

of its social function as it has


defined it itself, socio-religious

research still continues to consider

nature of the reference may sometimes be changed. So, for instance, the review

as a reference group, although the

Social Con~ yrf.r is described as a review of FERES, the aim of which is ’to help

Catholic research workers scientifically and to make the presence of Catholics

felt in the sociological world’. 19 In

another publication it is said that socio-

religious research has an

apologetic value in that the publication of exact data,

obtained in a scientific way by Catholics, illustrates to everyone their desire for

lucidity and truth. These

’apologetics’ are supposed to be very convincing with

What is proposed here is that socio-religious research done by Roman-Catholics

regard to scientific circles.

as Roman-Catholics is important. There seems to be no need,

however, to make

the same

type of presence felt in the field of industrial sociology for


This too, though is a discipline which is very much applied to guide social

behavior and human


If the commitment to the



Church and its value-orientations become



an institutionalized way, one should ask if this institutionalization is not

to the shift in and the